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What is "fasting" according to the scriptures?

(Garth D. Wiebe, March 2022)

I wrote this article to document a point that seems to be missed by all the teaching out there about "fasting." When the English word is used today, it always refers to an intentional, purposed regimen, to deprive one's self from food for religious/spiritual reasons. But that is a more narrow meaning than what the Greek word represents.

The Greek words used in the Bible are all from the same root: νηστ___. There is the noun, νηστις (translit. "nEstis"), Strong's number G3523, LSJ entry #73098, which simply refers to the deprivation, which would result in hunger. Then there is the noun νηστεια (translit. "nEsteia"), Strong's number G3521, LSJ entry #73092, which simply adds the Greek -ια suffix to it, equivalent to the English -ia suffix, which generalizes it to a class description (as in, for example, "academia" or "militia," etc.). Then there is the verb form, νηστευω (translit. "nEsteuO"), Strong's number G3522, LSJ entry #73094. There are also other parts of speech and variants that you can look up in a classical Greek dictionary.

To get right to the point, the Greek word used in the New Testament simply refers to deprivation, normally of food, but not necessarily purposed or intentional. Consider the following (as literally as I can translate, at the expense of rendering the English a bit awkwardly):

Yet the Jesus, calling toward his disciples, said, "I am being moved with compassion upon the throng, that already three days they are remaining toward me and they are not having anything they may eat, and I am not willing to dismiss them fasting, lest they may faint on the way." (Matt 15:32)

And if-supposing I should dismiss them fasting into their home, they will faint on the way, for some of them have arrived from afar. (Mark 8:3)

Both of these are from the well-known account of the feeding of the four thousand. It should be obvious that the reason these people were not eating was because they had come some distance and were gathered to be taught by Jesus. Also, in the words of Jesus, he does not want to dismiss them fasting. This is completely the opposite of an intentional fast for religious or spiritual reasons, and it is Jesus saying that he does not want them to "fast," that is, to be deprived of food.

At this point I want to emphasize, for the above examples and many of the ones that follow, that modern westerners are accustomed to quick and easy access to many choices of food, including prepared, ready to eat food, and we take this for granted. We can order pizza and have it delivered, we can stop at a fast food restaurant drive-through, we have grocery stores where we can pick up prepared food that is already ready to eat or can be quickly microwaved, and so on. In the first century this was hardly the case. In order to eat bread, for example, one would have to grind the grain from scratch using a stone grinder, hand-kneed it into flour, give it time to rise, start a fire in a wood-burning stove, and then bake it. Or, for the case of meat, one would have to slaughter an animal, butcher it, and then cook the meat, also dealing with the disposal of the remains of the animal. Food preparation was labor intensive and took hours. Continue to keep this in mind for the examples that follow.

In two instances the apostle Paul mentions "fasts" among a list of trials and tribulations he endured:

"...in blows, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fasts..." (2 Cor 6:5)

"...in toil and labor, in sleeplessness, often, in famine and thirst, in fasts, often in cold and nakedness..." (2 Cor 11:27)

Note that, in context, the apostle Paul is listing circumstances that happened to him, not what he purposed to do himself. Among those were circumstances of food deprivation that accompanied his trials and tribulations.

These scriptures show that νηστεια does not necessarily or intrinsically refer to intentional deprivation from food for religious/spiritual reasons.

Now, that said, let's look at a few scriptures where "fasting" was obviously for religious/spiritual reasons:

In Matt 6:16-18, Jesus tells his audience to not be like the hypocrites who make a show of their fasting. This is obviously intentional fasting.

In Matt 9:14-15, Mark 2:18, and Luke 5:33, the disciples of John the Baptist complain that they and the pharisees fast, but his disciples don't. That is clearly intentional fasting.

In Matt 17:21 and Mark 9:29, depending on the manuscript version, and assuming you believe that the statement is in the original text (which is a different discussion outside the scope of this article), "not without prayer and fasting" obviously refers to something intentional.

In Luke 2:37, Hannah the prophetess fasted. That is obviously intentional.

In Luke 18:12 the self-righteous pharisee "fasts twice a week." That is obviously intentional.

In Acts 10:30 Cornelius the Roman centurion was fasting and praying to God. That is obviously intentional.

In Acts 27:9, "Yet of considerable time elapsing and sailing being already hazardous, because also of the Fast already to have passed by...."

The last reference to Acts 27:9 is referring to a time of the year marked by the Fast, after which time sailing would be hazardous. Obviously the circumstances are about weather conditions, but the "Fast" is clearly a religious observance held each year. (This was said to be the Jewish Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur [Lev 23:27], which was on 10th Tisri, which maps to our Sept. 24). Note that this is the account of the apostle Paul in the storm at sea on the way to Rome, where circumstances were that they were not eating, probably because of the unexpected delay of the journey due to the weather and running low on food (there were "276" people on the ship, per verse 37, many of them prisoners), but in verse 33-34, he exhorts them to eat. So, the "Fast" was a particular event in the calendar that including a religious/intentional fast, but the circumstances on the ship had nothing to do with that, only the weather problem; the only advice we see in the scriptures here is the advice from the apostle Paul to eat, not abstain.

Next let's look at the scriptures where it is actually not obvious at all that the fasting is intentional, and I will explain how circumstances can actually indirectly result in deprivation of food, but not as an intentional religious/spiritual observance in of itself:

In Matt 4:2 it documents that Jesus fasted for forty days. However, he did not go into the wilderness to fast. It says in the verse before that he was led into the wilderness to be tried/tested/scrutinized/enticed (πειρασθηναι) by the adversary (i.e. the devil). Here Jesus did not "fast" in the traditional, self-disciplinary, often ceremonial sense, for that is always to deprive yourself of food that is freely available to you. The fact of the matter is that he was led into the wilderness and there was no food there, because it was the wilderness. So, "not eating" for forty days and nights, he was hungry, as a result.

Some people try to make an argument that because Jesus fasted, so should we. If so, then why don't they, likewise, following Jesus' example, go to the wilderness and stay there until they are done fasting? And is their motivation for doing it so that they can be tempted by the devil? You see, the account of Jesus fasting was both circumstantial and unique. If we don't go into the wilderness when we fast, and we don't do it for forty days, and we don't do it with a view to be tried/tested/scrutinized/enticed (πειρασθηναι) by the devil, then we cannot use this as justification to mandate fasting.

The next instance in question is in Matt 9:15, Mark 2:19-20, and Luke 5:34-35, where Jesus answers the objection about his disciples not fasting like those of the pharisees and John the Baptist. He says that the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken away, and then they will be fasting. At first glance, on the surface, this seems to imply that after Jesus is gone they will fast, from food, like the pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist. And I've heard people use this as justification to mandate fasting. But one needs to be a bit more astute than that. Jesus often took physical, natural things, and turned them into something figurative. For example, in John 6, Jesus tells people to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church was not astute, taking that literally and applying it to argue that this is literally what they are doing with the bread and wine of the Eucharist. And in John 4, the disciples of Jesus urge him to eat, but he responds, "I have food to eat that you do not know about...My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work." Then, in Matt 16:6 and Mark 8:15, Jesus says, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees," and the disciples suppose he is talking about food, but he was talking about their teaching, not food. And there are many more examples of Jesus applying natural things figuratively to make a more profound point. With this in mind, at one point it became clear to me that Jesus is not talking about fasting from food. He just finished saying that "the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away." That is what they will be deprived of: Jesus, their bridegroom! And it will be for three days! In grief, they will fast from the presence of the bridegroom! After that, Jesus would rise from the dead and, for us who believe, he is both with us and, in fact, in us! "For it is no longer we who are living, but Christ is living in us" (from Gal 2:20). Maybe physically Jesus is in heaven, but spiritually he is with us and in us, so the Christian cannot use the bodily absence of the person of Jesus to spiritually justify fasting.

I have also heard a few people quote quote Matt 6:17, "...when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face," trying to make the point that it says "when" not "if." But besides ignoring the context, which is not about what you should do, but what you should not do (make a show of fasting), the adverb "when" is not in the original text. There is only a verb participle, more literally, "yet you, fasting, rub your head and wash your face." The adverb "when" would be the Greek word οτε (translit. "[h]ote"), Strong's number G3753, LSJ entry #78082. That word is not in the original text.

This leaves only three fasting verses that we can relate to, post-cross under the New Covenant, two of the church at Antioch fasting, and the one in 1 Cor 7 about married couples, and none of them clearly indicate that anyone purposed to fast in of itself (such that the fasting itself would achieve an objective in of itself):

In Acts 13:2-3 the church at Antioch fasted, then sent out Paul and Barnabas. In Acts 14:23 the church at Antioch fasted, then placed elders. These two instances do not describe any objective for fasting. I already previously pointed out the contrast between our getting food in modern times and their preparing food in the first century. Food preparation would be time and labor intensive and they had important decisions to make about their endorsement/commissioning of Paul and Barnabas, and of elders. Given that, it is easy to understand how preparing and serving food would be a distraction to their important focus. It does not say that their fasting itself gave them special revelation, or persuaded God to do something, or whatever.

In the case of 1 Cor 7:5, the issue in the context has to do with marital sexual fulfillment, mentioning that sexual deprivation should not happen between a husband and wife except for a short time. It is not teaching anything about food. In fact, it would more logically refer to the "fast" being the sexual deprivation itself! Literally, without the English phrasing, "Do not be depriving one another, except...in order that you should have free-time/opportunity to the fasting and to the prayer..."

Now, all this said, I want to state as a disclaimer that this article is not meant to discourage or criticize fasting. From the word definition and the scriptures cited, my article is meant to discourage and criticize any teaching of fasting as a mandate for New Testament believers. There are no proof texts or teachings of scripture in the New Testament to support fasting as a mandate, and in this article I have cited all the New Testament fasting scriptures. The discussion concerning when and why we should fast ("should" not "must") are not addressed here, and you can research the topic elsewhere; in a nutshell, it is to get the flesh out of the way by abstaining from food (and never to attempt to manipulate God, or a devil, or anything else).

No copyrightI grant this work to the public domain.